By Janet Fang
Posting in Government
These mutant strains of H5N1 bird flu are capable of spreading between mammals. Should the work be published in full to aid pandemic preparedness or redacted to prevent misuse by terrorists?
Last month, the World Health Organization convened in Geneva, Switzerland and decided that research describing 2 mutant strains of H5N1 avian influenza that are capable of spreading between mammals should be published in full.
The decision to publish data was a controversial one: should the work be published in full to aid pandemic preparedness or redacted to prevent misuse by terrorists? Nature News examines the debate.
- H5N1 is a subtype of the most virulent of flu viruses to affect humans.
- One particular strain of H5N1, called highly pathogenic avian influenza, is responsible for the bird flu scares. It circulates regularly among birds and has jumped to humans on occasion.
- Since 2003, the wild virus has infected around 600 people, and 59% died.
Two teams of scientists, led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have created mutant strains of H5N1 avian influenza.
But what makes them dangerous is this: these lab strains are capable of spreading between mammals. The wild virus cannot effectively spread between people… but the mutant strains can spread between ferrets, a good animal model for flu transmission between humans.
Why do this?
The studies provide basic knowledge about the potential of H5N1 to mutate – information that help public health workers monitor wild viruses for similar mutations that make H5N1 more dangerous to humans. That way, health agencies could then advise manufacturers of flu drugs and vaccines to ramp up production, or instigate stricter measures to prevent transmission.
Would that actually work?
It seems unlikely that manufacturers will preemptively produce more vaccine on the basis of a potential threat. And tracking flu mutations is logistically difficult.; surveillance is patchy, especially in poorer countries where H5N1 is most common.
Could the viruses be used in bioterrorism?
Unlike most other bioterror agents, H5N1 can be fought with vaccines and drugs, and cannot be targeted to a specific population. However, a rapid pandemic would overwhelm our ability to manufacture more vaccines and drugs. AND, there are also signs that some wild strains of H5N1 have developed resistance to antiviral drugs.
Could the mutant viruses escape from labs?
Accidental infections of SARS have affected staff at 4 biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) and BSL-4 labs in mainland China. The experiments that created the mutant H5N1 strains were done in BSL-3 'enhanced' labs. The most dangerous viruses, such as Ebola, are studied in BSL-4 labs – with extra safety protocols and more security measures such as bomb-proofing and video surveillance.
Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s work have been accepted for publication by Science and Nature, respectively.
From Nature News.
Image by TommyMac via Flickr
Related on SmartPlanet:
- The Morning Briefing: Bird flu research and political plays
- Government asks journals to censor details of deadly flu virus
- Chickens engineered to be bird flu dead ends
Mar 7, 2012
I would say mutant a wild virus as I read in this blog that it ha caused more than 600 people suffered, I like reading information regarding this. http://www.gymsource.com/schwinn-exercise-bikes-1
I donât think so that manufacturer of the vaccines for that particular flue mutation will be able to do so as it is not easy to track, I like reading this blog. http://www.TampaDentalCarePlus.com
The Virus??? When is a life form not a life form? When it???s a virus! To be a good virus it needs several important attributes. Firstly it should be easily transmittable (Bird Flu, Swine Flu) mutated into a human form, may well be. In other words, it needs to stay in its host long enough to survive the immune system, to grow, and then be passed on to another host. Secondly, it does not need to be too virulent. If it is, it will kill its host before it has time to be passed on. Thirdly, it needs the right conditions, like a highly populated area or an easily and quickly traversed area from population to population. The twenty-first century will do nicely, with its super fast transport system. A virus is, basically, a tiny bundle of genetic material, either DNA or RNA, carried in a shell called the viral coat, which is made up of bits of protein. Some viruses have an additional layer around this coat called an envelope. That???s basically all there is to viruses. Viruses are strange things that straddle the fence between living and non-living. On the one hand, if they???re floating around in the air or sitting on a doorknob, they???re inert. They???re about as alive as a rock. But if they come into contact with a suitable host cell, they spring into action. They infect and take over the cell like terrorists hijacking a plane. Viruses exist for one purpose only: to reproduce. To do that, they have to take over the reproductive machinery of suitable host cells. Upon landing on an appropriate host cell, a virus gets its genetic material inside the cell either by tricking the host cell to pull it inside, as it would a nutrient molecule, or by fusing its viral coat with the host cell wall or membrane and releasing its genes inside. Its genetic material then inserts itself into the host cell???s DNA. The viral genes are then copied many, many times, using the machinery the host cell would normally use to reproduce its own DNA. The virus uses the host cell???s enzymes to build new viral capsids and other viral proteins. The new viral genes and proteins then come together and assemble into whole new viruses. The new viruses eventually build up to a large enough number that they burst the host cell like an overfilled water balloon. These in turn go on to double quadruple etc, and invade other normal cells and the process rapidly escalates until you have millions upon millions of mutated cells. Bearing in mind your respiratory immune system is fighting like hell to defeat these invaders by producing anti-bodies, and also bearing in mind that these anti-bodies are killing your already mutated respiratory cells, is it any wonder that you basically drown (in your own blood, that is). Now you are educated as to the situation and the possibilities, let???s proceed! For a virus to become an epidemic, it needs; a source, a pathway and a receptor. For an epidemic to become a pandemic; it needs Ignorance, fear and blind panic??? If you want to learn more... Cuger brant : As simple as ABC
I don't object to scientist studying ways to use genetic combinations to understand viruses and flu in particular. If they have a new strain of a virus then they should make a vaccine for that new strain for that just in case problem that the lab specimen gets loose or the wild strains make the jump and mutate in a similar way. The virus studies could lead to better vaccines that work for a wider spectrum of the virus. It could also help to make a vaccine that can be distributed to the major carriers of flu- the birds.
@Cuger Brant Thanks for the explanation. Much appreciated.